Every cheese tells a story. And Laura Werlin, over the past nine years, has become the Food & Wine Classic’s resident cheese raconteur.
A San Francisco-based writer, and part-time Aspenite, Werlin has written six books on the topic, including the James Beard Award-winning “The All American Cheese and Wine Book,” along with two on grilled cheese and one on macaroni and cheese. This year she’s hosting two Food & Wine programs, with multiple sessions each: one on mountain wines and cheeses and another on sparkling wine and cheese pairings.
The old-world traditions behind the mountain cheeses she’s selected come along with some great tales (and tastes).
A sheep’s milk cheese from the Pyrenees, for instance, is made by shepherds who make only one annual pilgrimage to markets to sell their product.
“The cheese itself tells the story of a region,” Werlin said. “They live in hardscrabble conditions, and this is how they make their living. They live in the cold, high up, and make cheese generation after generation.”
There are more cheeses made in mountains than anyone — even an expert like Werlin — will ever know, because so many are still made in remote areas and sold only locally.
The Pyrenees selection is Tomme Brulee — its rind is singed much like creme brulee — a hard cheese that Werlin characterizes as rich and nutty, with smoky caramel notes.
Another selection, from the Fribourg region of Switzerland, is a gruyere called 1655 Gruyere, named for the year shepherds began using its recipe.
“Mountain cheeses feel like they’re more traditional than every other cheese, because they’ve been made for so long,” Werlin said. “I feel like less has been changed in mountain cheeses than in sea-level cheeses.”
The gruyere is the product of both centuries-old cheese-making tradition and modern rules in the region that protect the integrity of its dairy products — specifying breeds of cows for its milk, the number of hectares each cow in a herd is allotted and how many cows they can have.
“It’s very different from the gruyere you’re going to get in the grocery store,” Werlin said. “It’s the best example of what gruyere can be.”
Her other mountain-made selections include a blue cheese from Italy and one from Colorado. In past years, Werlin often has highlighted Paonia’s Avalanche Cheese Co. This year she represents Colorado with Haystack Mountain Goat Cheese, from outside Boulder, with a rare year-aged award-winning offering called Wall Street Gold (named for the Wall Street mining district).
“There aren’t that many mountain cheeses in the U.S. but this one is wonderful,” Werlin said.
The mountain cheeses will be paired with wines selected by Food & Wine magazine associate wine editor Megan Krigbaum.
In her second seminar this weekend, on sparkling wines and cheese pairings, Werlin is picking her own wines. She said she stayed away from selecting champagnes for fear of competing with Shayn Bjornholm’s “Showstopping Champagnes” seminars. Werlin’s sparkling selections include just one champagne, two French sparkling wines, Italy’s Ca’ del Bosco Cuvee, a Spanich cava, a Tazmanian sparkling rose and a California wine from the Anderson Valley’s Roederer Estate, which she calls “arguably America’s best sparkling wine.”
The paired cheeses again come from all over, including offerings from Washington and Wisconsin, Vermont Creamery’s bonne bouche (which also is featured in the Grand Tasting Tent all weekend), a creamy blue-rind buffalo cheese from Italy, a traditional garrotxa from Spain, one from MouCo Cheese Company in Fort Collins and a triple cream cheese called Mt. Tam from California’s Cowgirl Creamery.
“It’s a great candidate for sparkling wine,” she said of the Mt. Tam. “Bubbles are really refreshing when you have a rich, triple cream cheese.”
Werlin’s seminars tend to fill up early, due to her track record of serving attendees a sampling of hard-to-find and delectable cheeses, while treating the crowd to the stories behind their making.
“I always like, at Food & Wine, to introduce cheeses to people that they don’t know,” she said. “Even if they can’t get them where they live, that’s party of what makes Food & Wine special.”
And before Werlin became a staple of Aspen’s annual gathering of gourmands since joining the Food & Wine roster in 2006, presenting at the festival here in her backyard was among her highest career aspirations.
“When I got that call from (Food & Wine editor) Dana Cowin to be a speaker, I thought I had won the lottery,” she said. “It was the confluence of everything I love and wanted to be doing. I loved Aspen already. My dream was to be a speaker at Food & Wine. Those things came together when I got that call from Dana.”